Saturday, July 11, 2009

Ambivalent about Acapulco

Originally published in the Post Register.
ACAPULCO, Mexico - Acapulco Bay and the surrounding city are undeniably beautiful, particularly if you don't leave the cruise ship that brought you there.

The bloom is off the rose. More bluntly, Acapulco can be an unsettling place.

Let's face it -- cruisers aren't exactly looking for adventure. Maybe a taste of the local culture, a hint of what a place is like, but please -- nothing that could be considered risky or even a little uncomfortable.

So when a cruise ship pulls in, its passengers either opt for a carefully choreographed tour or enjoy the weather and the views from the ship's pool deck. It's not an ideal place for a late-night stroll or meandering taxi tour.

Acapulco is set in one of the world's most magnificent bays and enjoys perfect winter weather. But it also has Mexico's fifth-highest crime rate where drug cartels famously fight over turf.

The city itself is a little on the grimy side, and not in a charming way like Puerto Vallarta. Many of the hotels were built in the 1960s at the height of Acapulco's popularity. The beach is still lovely and parts of the city are safe and clean, but many sections of town are best left unvisited.

Our local tour guide (yes, we took one of the choreographed bus tours) didn't mince words when pointing out the barred windows on homes and businesses on the ride between the dock and La Quebrada, home of the cliff divers. There would be no stopping until we reached our destination.

Of course, the night-time cliff diving show was stunning, as were the hawkers trying to sell dolls, hats, T-shirts and counterfeit Cuban cigars. The dinner overlooking the beautiful bay featured stunning views and average food. The ride back to the boat went through the majority of downtown, where Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King franchises mingle with drug stores selling medications on the cheap.

Fortunately, we had spent most of the day on the boat, enjoying the beautiful bay and tropical breeze plus the amenities of the ship.

No, we didn't go looking for the authentic Acapulco. We also didn't go looking for the authentic Detroit when we visited there some years back.

We got authentic -- safely so -- the next day in Zihuatanejo, just up the coast from Acapulco. A pretty little fishing village, "Z" is all that Acapulco is not -- charming, quiet, walkable and laid back. Up the road, the resort town of Ixtapa is all about icky commercialism.

We stayed in Zihuatanejo. Besides, it's a fun word to say, and the nickname implies a nice nap.

We'd go back to Z in a heartbeat and stay a long while. Acapulco, probably not.

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